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Learning about visas

I’m just starting my third week as an intern at Microsoft Research, and I’m still figuring out how to blog this experience.  I’m working in the Human Interactions in Programming group studying remote onboarding of new employees in the Microsoft Canada Development Centre (MCDC).

We originally defined remote onboarding as a process new hires who are geographically separated from their teams go through when joining a new company.  After interviewing managers and HR professionals, it makes more sense to think of remote onboarding as a process the organization goes through to help new employees be productive.  We use remote instead of distributed because only one person is physically separate from the rest (sometimes called a “one-off”).   For me, distributed refers to a group whose members are in a number of different places, either together in groups or apart in one-offs or groups.  Basically remote is a subcategory of distributed and a special enough category to get its own name. Microsoft uses a similar term, remote management, to refer to the kind of management leads and other managers must use to work with employees who are far from them, whether at MCDC or in India, Ireland, China, etc.

I’m conducting a comparative case study in order to understand how remote onboarding works and how various interventions impact onboarding experiences.  Of course some part of my energy is directed at identifying areas for growth so that Microsoft can improve their onboarding, but it’s too early in the study for me to talk about improvements.  That said, I think I’m ready to say the U.S. has some serious room for improvement in its visa and immigration rules.

Many people are working from MCDC while they await an H1-B visa.  Others are planning to stay in Canada for some time.  A third group are waiting for L visas.  As I understand it, both H1-B and L visas are work visas; people who hold them are able to work in the U.S.  H1-B’s are the visas awarded through lotteries that we hear and read about while Congress and the Presidential candidates debate immigration reform.  Microsoft has been pretty open about its feelings about immigration laws.  They want to hire more foreign workers because they are qualified, but the U.S. won’t let them in the country.  Enter MCDC.  Canada apparently likes the idea of highly-skilled workers with good salaries living within its borders.  L visas are internal transfer visas and are not part of a lottery system.  Basically, if you work for Microsoft in another country for 365 days, you can then get an internal transfer and L visa to come live in the U.S. and work for Microsoft for 5 years.  The H and L visas differ in their rules for getting them, the rights you and your family members have in the U.S., the length of stay, renewal, etc.  I’ll be learning all about visas in the next couple of months.  I’m pretty sure I’ll think we need some reform though.  65,000 H1-B’s clearly aren’t the right answer to the global competitiveness challenge.

Call for Participation – ICLS Workshop

I’m hosting a workshop at ICLS 2008 with Stephanie Teasley, Volker Wulf, Eric Cook, and Jude Yew  – The Missing Chapters: Learning Sciences Beyond the Classroom.

This workshop will provide momentum toward building a community of Learning Sciences researchers who focus on learning that takes place in non-traditional contexts with learners of any age. Our goal is to bring together researchers who might otherwise be on the fringe of learning sciences to discuss their work and help generate publications appropriate for new chapters in the next Handbook of the Learning Sciences or a special issue of a Learning Sciences journal.

More information about the workshop is available on our blog.

On the move again (or Internship, woot!)

I’ll be in the Seattle area this summer working for Microsoft Research. I’m excited about my internship with Andy Begel in the Human Interactions in Programming group. I’ll get to study newly hired developers and hopefully help make their lives a little easier. I won’t be building anything, which is a relief. I mentioned in an SI venue yesterday, again, that I think we need to do some more work advancing social science lest we become theory-anemic tinkerers.

Stovepipes and how mine is better than yours

Ok, so now I’ve done some reading, and I have dusted some of the luster off the academia-business divide.  (It’s Friday; I wrote another proposal draft yesterday; I’ll be unpredictable today.)

I’m reading Gartner’s “Magic Quadrant for Team Collaboration and Social Software, 2007” report.  I got it from Socialtext, but I’m not sure how.  In fact, there were a few PHP errors when I submitted the form to get the document, so my path was broken anyway.  So, the ridiculous title aside, I thought maybe this document would be interesting and enlightening.  The summary at the beginning is nice – tells me social software is a priority in 2008, explains that the paper is going to talk about social software market players.  Fair enough.  I’ll leave the fuzzy definition of “social software” aside and read on.

The paper tries to describe products available in the market and lists strengths and weaknesses for each. No where in the whole thing does it say where Mr. Nikos Drakos (again, Gartner, with the boys’ club) got any of his information or whether he ever spoke to a person who uses any of these products.  I’m apparently supposed to assume that Mr. Drakos knows more than I do and that this oracle is authoritative and accurate.  Yeah, not so much.  If nothing else, I’ve learned to doubt in my 22 years of schooling.  I think I’m fired up because some of the products he mentions such as Twiki are miserable failures for users.  Those of us who do user-centered research involving social software found that out by, gasp!, watching users try to use them, analyzing log data about use and content, and trying other products.

I don’t know that I meant for this post to become quite so rant-y, but there you have it.  I see the difference in rigor that distinguishes academic research from at least some forms of business research.  I like rigor.  I wish I had more time to develop my own social software based on what academic research has shown (maybe I could even make money), but I have to write that pesky dissertation.  I wish I could find more organizations interested in studying the use and effectiveness of the social software tools they employ.  I wish we could afford to experiment a bit more with the tools we build and use.  That said, Gartner’s report is clearly more clearly written and probably more immediately useful than my work, so they get points for that.  But Twiki?  Seriously?  Come on.

“I prefer to break [the rules] and follow my actors…”

Today I’m getting up my courage to do a truly descriptive study for my dissertation. I had a bit of practice writing good descriptions in a class last term with Curtis LeBaron, but I’m often encouraged to explain or posit causes and effects. My inner philosopher has always been troubled with that approach. I find myself getting defensive in meetings where people push me to think about what my work will mean for systems design. How can I know until I really know what’s going on in the little bit of the world I study? I’m not alone in wanting more description. I’ll always have Bruno Latour. In fact, the title of this post is a line from On Using ANT: a dialogue by Latour. It’s a chapter in The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology (C. Avgerou, C. Ciborra, and F. Land, eds).

I’ve read that dialogue a number of times in the last few years, and every time I read it, I am met with a disgruntling mix of emotions. I find the dialogue quite motivating. Latour’s professor encourages his student to go into the world and write his dissertation. Not to explain but to describe. And in describing to write and write and write. Not to dwell on frameworks or to think his dissertation will enlighten his subjects or even change the world. I like to describe; I’m game. Latour’s professor is also frustrating though. The (near) end of the dialogue sums it up (S = student, P = professor):

S: But, your sort of "science", it seems to me, means breaking all the rules of social science training.

P: I prefer to break them and follow my actors . . . As you said, I am, in the end, a naive realist.

S: But see, I'm just a Ph.D. student. You're a professor. You have published, you can afford to do things that I can't. I have to listen to my supervisor. I simply can't follow your advice too far.

The student nailed my concern. How can I afford to do actor-network theory (yes, Latour describes it as Doing ANT) when nearly all of social science is asking me to build a framework or build on a framework and then to explain? Sigh.

Research is messy

Last week I participated in a mixed methods workshop with John Creswell. The workshop was quite valuable; we worked through designing a proposal for a real research project. I forget the name of the student whose project we outlined, but he was proposing to study biodiversity sustainability programs in Vietnam and Cambodia. We worked through various stages of his proposal including writing a problem statement, asking research questions, titling the project, etc. But, we didn’t do those things in that order. In fact, we started with the title and ended with the problem statement 4 hours later. That exercise served as a reminder that no matter how straightforward work seems when it’s written for publication, or even in a methods textbook, the actual moment-to-moment work is unlikely to be so linear.

I’ve tried to keep in mind that work is not linear, but I often get tripped up trying to follow outlines or to make my research fit into a step-by-step program that gets me to graduation next year. That’s not how the world works though. I’ve been hunting for the right methods approach to studying the ECC story, and I’ve finally figured out that my study is probably best structured as a case study. And so, I’ve been re-reading Robert K. Yin’s case study books from Sage Publications.

Yin is careful and persistent when discussing the role of theory in designing case studies, and that’s the point where I’m currently stuck. My instincts (pretty well-honed by this point) tell me that communities of practice, social capital, actor-network theory, activity theory, and organizational learning have something to contribute to the theoretical framework I should use to address the ECC case. What I haven’t been able to do to this point is to make them all fit together in a way that would provide a set of patterns against which I will be able to check my case study data.

My dissertation proposal has morphed into two different documents – the proposal itself and a case study protocol document. I’m even still working in both Word and LaTeX. I just received helpful feedback on the proposal document (that one’s in LaTeX) from one of my committee members. He recognized that my current struggle is about clarifying the questions I want my project to answer. He says, “You need a statement of what you’d like to accomplish…” Yeah, he’s right.

Part of the problem relates to the negotiated nature of this dissertation project, I think. It took me a year, but I’ve finally given in. I will do a study that relates to the grant that feeds me because it involves collaboration, and collaboration is definitely interesting and significant to me. Now my task is to find a set of questions that are clear, answerable, and related to the CI-TEAM grant in some way.

I blogged this because I thought it was important for me to write a stream-of-consciousness piece in case another struggling A.B.D. happens to be searching the internet for others in her boat. Sister, I’m in it. Dissertation-writing is messy. It’s takes a great deal of humility, negotiation, compromise, and patience. It’s not linear. It requires one to go back and forth between literature, data collection, and analysis repeatedly and in different orders. I’m pretty sure I’ll have written about 10x as much content as actually ends up in the final version of my dissertation, and all of that writing is necessary and important work. Plenty of people and dissertation books talk about how dissertation writing is hard, but very few admit that it’s also incredibly messy. Just when I start to feel like I’ve made some progress, I get thrown a curveball by some theory or data, and I’m in a whole new spot. Frustrating, yes, but I think that’s just the way it is.

Not my dissertation but close to my heart

Here’s a summary of the other research I do (or want to do) that’s not my dissertation. This was originally a 2-page research statement submitted to some people with money to burn.

Research Summary – Communities and Technologies

At the broadest level, my research is about communities and technology. My research enriches our understanding of the roles social media play in supporting offline communities. My approach differs from much of current social media research, because I focus on teams and organizations in which people know each other and use technologies to support their activities (e.g. Upcoming!, workplace wikis) rather than on online communities of people who do not know one another offline (e.g. SlashDot, Yahoo! Answers) (see Beenen et al., 2004; Lampe & Resnick, 2004; Preece, 2000; and Smith & Kollock, 1999). My work necessarily encompasses studying offline behavior as well online behavior; in order to understand social media use by groups, it helps to understand the nature of a community. My research highlights the situated nature of social media use by offline communities and focuses on how social and technical processes impact community behavior both online and off. A better understanding of behavior in communities using social media enables us to design social media more effectively and to recommend behaviors and tools to make communities more successful.

My most recent work asks, how do faculty and students in a graduate school use a wiki to share information about their community with each other and with the public? What does their use tell us about what it might be important for new community members to learn? How can we use their wiki use behavior to understand how people make decisions about what information to share and what to keep to themselves? Understanding the community provides insights into the way members of those communities interact with one another via social media. My goal is to leverage human and computing resources so that a sociotechnical system can use the skills of humans and benefits of computation to improve collaboration and its supporting technologies. The remainder of this document briefly describes projects in which I have been involved with and ends with an overview of my continuing work.

Sharing and Storing Community Knowledge

In an era when more than half of all doctoral students leave before finishing their degrees and students must compete for increasingly scarce human and financial resources, it’s no surprise that students welcome help completing their degree requirements. What is surprising in this instance is that students are not just the primary consumers of the information but are also the primary producers. They share human subjects review applications, books that help them write dissertation proposals, interview protocols, even advice about how to set up an experiment using existing technical resources. We might expect students competing for the same pool of resources to hoard, but in this instance, students are much more collaborative than competitive. Their behavior on the wiki demonstrates this difference, but only by studying the offline community can we really understand why. In this case, it’s likely that the collaborative ethic of the school itself permeates the doctoral students. Faculty and students at the school, regardless of whether they use the wiki, recognize and enjoy the collegial atmosphere of the school. Students are well-funded by research and teaching positions and are encouraged by their faculty’s examples and instructions to work together to do better research. The wiki is not the reason students share, but it is the social media tool they use to do so.

Another aspect of the wiki example that I find interesting is the near-mashup nature of content created and the potential such behavior indicates. On the wiki, users include data available elsewhere but combine that data in community-specific ways. For instance, one wiki page serves as a marketplace for used textbooks required by courses within the school. That page includes data from the course syllabi, email lists, booksellers, and individual users. Such pages indicate community information needs – in this case, students need to sell their extra books to a small potential market while students in that buying market seek good deals on books and some advance warning of what textbooks they’ll need. Such pages also indicate what potentially useful mashups might appear were users able to construct them. New social media that offer and use open APIs such as Yahoo! Pipes, Yahoo! Maps, and Upcoming! make asking such questions – what data sources might users combine for their communities if they could do it themselves? – possible.

Facilitating Ad Hoc Ridesharing

I was part of the original RideNow team at the University of Michigan. Our goal was to facilitate ad hoc ridesharing in Ann Arbor and to develop technologies that could be used to do the same in other communities. Cars in the U.S. can comfortably seat four or five people but rarely carry more than one (Transportation Statistics, 2004). Filling some of those seats would create tremendous benefits for both individuals and society as a whole. Riders and drivers would have convenient travel and the possibility of pleasant conversation. Society would benefit from reduced emissions and road congestion. However, barriers to ridesharing include 1) coordination problems, 2) risks of riding with strangers, and 3) mismatch in cost and benefit for riders and drivers.

We designed a service, called RideNow, that approached the problem of ridesharing by capitalizing on the benefits of incremental and localized design. Our system avoids the costs of overengineering by allowing incremental changes to occur. For example, the first instance of the system was rather bare bones – it offered free text fields that allowed users to decide how to specify ride information. Later versions of the system offered structured fields based on the behavior users exhibited in the first system. For example, the second generation of RideNow can parse dates such as “next Friday” rather than requiring a user to enter a specific date. The system also capitalizes on the benefits of nuance and ambiguity afforded by localized design. For example, RideNow’s data fields allow users to enter information such as “after the faculty meeting.” Our goal with RideNow was to design a system that allowed a well-established community to use personalized, situated software (Shirky, 2004) and that remained flexible enough to be adopted by other communities.

Continuing Research

My future work will extend my interest in studying communities and designing/building software to facilitate their collaborative activities. It is important to me to have a close connection between field research and system design. As social computing tools become more prevalent and the distance between developer and user diminishes, opportunities to improve both development and use abound. I look forward to asking question such as, how can we make powerful mashup tools such as Yahoo! Pipes usable by non-developers? What would users do with such technologies if they could use them? How would users tailor the content of their mashups and contributions to specific community audiences? I have seen users embrace flexible, situated technologies such as ridesharing systems and wikis, and I believe there is great promise for end-user development of social computing technologies. Issues such as community building and information sharing generalize regardless of the community being studied, and I look forward to the opportunity to study social computing and larger, distributed offline communities such as political movements and distributed work teams.


(2004). Omnibus survey household survey results. U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Beenen, G., Ling, K., Wang, X., Chang, K., Frankowski, D., Resnick, P. & Kraut, R. (2004). Using social
psychology to motivate contributions to online communities. In Proceedings of the Conference on
Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI 2004

Lampe, C. & Resnick, P. (2004). Slash(dot) and burn: Distributed moderation in a large online conversation space. In Proceedings of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI 2004 (pp. 542—550). Vienna, Austria: ACM Press.

Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Designing Usability and Supporting Socialbility. New York: Wiley.

Shirky, C. (2004). Situated software.

Smith, M. & Kollock, P. (Eds.). (1999). Communities in Cyberspace. Routledge.

Getting that article you need right this second

I will save a rant about my frustrations with end-user library systems for a future post. For now, I’ll stick with staying positive. This post describes the process my lovely reference librarian friends have helped me establish for identifying, locating, and downloading electronic versions of articles I really want to read. It’s cold and snowy in Michigan, parking near central campus is a nightmare, and I just don’t want to wait for physical copies to come to north campus. I want my articles now!

Ok, anyway, here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A Google Scholar window
  2. A UM SearchTools window
  3. (if you’re off campus) A CoSign session so you can access the library’s UM-only resources. Login at http://weblogin.umich.edu

And here’s what you do:

  1. Use Google Scholar to search for an article on a specific topic (ex. social capital)
  2. Click on an article title to get the details page; make sure you can tell from the details where it was published and when
  3. In SearchTools, click “Find e-Journals
  4. Search for the publication that published the article you want (ex. Academy of Management Review)
  5. Click on the journal in your search results
  6. Use one of the online databases to “browse” for your article using the volume, number, date, pages, etc. information from the Google Scholar results (I use Proquest ABI/INFORM if it’s available; it’s the easiest one to browse and offers HTML text and PDF view options.)

Tada! You can have that article right now. Well, unless you, like I was, are looking for an Academy of Management article from 2002. We don’t have those online apparently. Argh. I’ll have to go out in the cold.

iConference Roundtable

Sean Munson and I will be hosting a roundtable discussion at the iConference at UCLA in February. The preconference wiki is up and ready for your contributions. Here’s the description of the roundtable:


Professional students, whether undergraduates or masters’ students, represent a significant portion of the iSchool community. How do iSchools effectively educate those students while continuing to develop successful research programs? This roundtable discussion will focus on how iSchools educate their professional students and engage them in the research aspect of their programs. Innovative approaches to training and integration will be the central theme of this discussion. In an iSchool — where students training for professions including librarianship, information policy, human-centered computing, preservation and researchers exploring such topics as incentive-centered design, forensic informatics, computational linguistics, and digital libraries have both competing and complimentary goals — the potentials for collaboration, innovation, misunderstanding, and disharmony are all high.

The annual iConference provides a unique opportunity for us, as a community, to discuss the roles our professional students have in shaping our identity and our practices. The proposed roundtable will invite participants to discuss questions such as:

* What should the role of research in training information professionals be?
* How can we best engage professional students in our research?
* How do iSchools address the unique curricular challenges we face in preparing students for a very wide variety of careers?
* What do we want an Information degree to signal in the marketplace?
* What are some successes in which research and professional training have benefited one another?

Participants will share innovative approaches to professional education, best practices in engaging professional students in research programs, and remaining challenges. We intend roundtable participation to represent the diversity of iSchools’ current programs. Confirmed participants include:

* Dr. Eileen G. Abels, Master’s Program Director, Associate Professor, College of Information Science & Technology, Drexel University
* Dr. Judith S. Olson, Richard W. Pew Collegiate Professor of Human Computer Interaction and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Information, University of Michigan

Each speaker will present introductory remarks highlighting some of the achievements and challenges they face in their home programs, after which discussion will include questions and input from the attendees. This will be an interactive forum proposing ideas for new approaches to education and integration of professional students. We encourage participants to discuss ideas that work (and those that don’t!) in their schools. We will create and publicize a wiki space for pre- and post-conference participation as well.


We’re hoping that Beth Mynatt from Georgia Tech will also join us and talk a bit about their successes. We’d love to have anyone interested in professional students and information research to join our discussion both online and in Los Angeles. The preliminary schedule of the conference indicates that our roundtable will take place sometime on Friday, February 29.

Solving the service provider problem

During the CDI Workshop at Rennselaer in September, one of the computer scientists complained that when he collaborates with social scientists, he feels like they view him as a service provider rather than a collaborator. It sounded like he had some experience with a social scientist who’s approach was to say, “Go build this thing so I can deploy it and study the deployment.” In my short talk, I mentioned that social scientists in interdisciplinary collaborations are not service providers either. I’ve worked with computer scientists before who approach our work with the attitude that I will “fix the social stuff”, whatever that means. So it seems that we have a problem. Computer scientists and social scientists recognize that if we worked together, we might find answers to interesting problems. Here I’m thinking about expertise finding, knowledge sharing, and distributed collaboration as problems that might benefit from such a collaboration. How can we work together without having either side feel like the other side is using them for a service rather than as a colleague?

Man, I wish I had an answer. Why is this bothering me today? Well, I’m trying to set up CoSign so that the new version of the KNOW SI wiki will allow UM users to login using their existing UM login credentials. This means I need to dig into the innards of the Apache server we’re running. That sounds almost CS-y to me. Probably not to a CS person though. Anyway, CoSign and the resulting permissions options represent one of the socio-technical problems that I think could benefit from both computer science and social science. What’s the best way to set up permissions on our school wiki? What technical infrastructure (e.g. .htaccess, CoSign, MediaWiki extensions) is necessary to supporting the kind of social behavior (e.g. TBD, which makes the technical questions that much harder) in which people want to engage on this wiki? Those are the questions I’ll be wrestling with this weekend and probably for a while.